Ethnic And Racial Social Movements Research Paper

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Ethnic and racial social movements (hereafter E/R social movements) are goal-directed actions sustained by groups whose identity is recognized by the presence of racial or ethnic markers. These markers typically include skin pigmentation, ancestry, language, and history of discrimination, conquest, or other shared experience. For simplicity (and to avoid invoking unscientific assumptions about race), many researchers prefer the label ethnic mobilization. Ethnic mobilization includes activities that range from small-scale, sporadic events to well-developed campaigns and/or civil war.

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Several conceptual distinctions have facilitated the understanding of the emergence, growth, and decay of E/R social movements. Some (but not all) scholars distinguish ethnic mobilization from ethnic solidarity. Solidarity is characterized as the conscious identification (and loyalty) with a particular race or ethnic population, measured by attitudes or organizational involvement. This distinction has allowed Minkoff (1995) to analyze the effects of the growth of racial solidarity organizations on the rate of racial protest activity and vice versa.

Social movement theories distinguish various forms of movements by their duration, target, tactics, violence, and audience. These distinctions yield three broad categories of E/R movements: (a) territorial sovereignty movements that demand regional autonomy, separatism, diaspora settlements, and/or secession; (b) protests that demand expansion of a group’s civil and economic rights or demand an end to discrimination; (c) collective attacks ranging from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mob violence, to symbolic threats. Studies of E/R movements traditionally analyze these forms separately (Horowitz 1975, Banton 1983). For example, race riots are distinguished from other types of ethnic conflict by expressions of violence that might involve hundreds or thousands of persons in activity that lasts several hours or more (Spilerman 1970, Myers 1997). Protests for civil rights typically include marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other similar tactical forms (McAdam 1982). To the extent that E/R social movements seek to eradicate and replace existing geographical and administrative state boundaries, they provoke violence on the part of insurgents and state authorities. This is particularly true for separatist or secession movements demanding formal withdrawal from a central political authority (or, in the case of irredentist/diaspora movements, claiming territorial sovereignty for formerly dispersed populations) (Hechter 1992).

Most studies focus on one of these forms of E/R social movement within a single country. Other researchers have used comparative research designs to test the emergence of various forms in different settings (Gurr 1993). These designs allow researchers to pursue questions about the diffusion of E/R social movements across national boundaries.

Two key questions drive research efforts in this area. First, how does ethnic identity become transformed into social movements? Second, what explains the emergence and persistence of E R movements?

1. The Transformation Of Group Identity Into Social Movements

To transform subjective group identity into goaldirected ethnic mobilization, a group must overcome the seemingly natural resistance of individuals to sustain collective action. By invoking norms of group loyalty, social sanctions sometimes transform inert groups into meaningful and purposive social action. Consequently, members are continuously constructing group boundaries (Barth 1969, Hechter 1987a). Social movements tend to develop when these boundaries are challenged and group identities are defended.

When does sporadic ethnic activity become a social movement? Answering this question is difficult because no thresholds have been established in the empirical literature. In contrast to isolated ethnic events, these social movements involve sustained efforts to evoke major changes in political goals, such as policies regarding subordinate groups, redefinition of citizenship boundaries or rights, and/or efforts to exclude, subjugate, or control a population or region. Thus, social movements tend to be more enduring and continuous than are other forms of ethnic mobilization.

Historical evidence suggests that nation-building activities have often provoked enduring E/R social movements. For example, Smith (1979, p. 34) identifies a sequence of events that encourage separatism, beginning with initial state-building processes including creation of a centralized bureaucracy and diffusion of national educational institutions. A related line of research has emphasized the role of elite mobility into leading institutions also shaping E/R movements. If ethnic elites find their mobility blocked, ethnic mobilization around claims of minority discrimination will arise (Williams 1994).

An extreme form of violent social movements against a target population is genocide or ethnic cleansing. Historical examples often include claims of ethnic or racial purity that required exclusion or extermination of some other group. Most recently, this form of violence has arisen as former states (or modern empires) fragment or dissolve entirely and attempt to forge new and ethnically homogeneous identities (Jalali and Lipset 1992). The consequence is often a combination of pogroms, terrorist movements, disenfranchisement, and other methods of physical attack such as lynchings, rape, or civil war.

2. The Dynamics Of Movements: Emergence, Growth, And Decay

Several prominent theoretical traditions have been offered to explain the emergence, growth, and decay of E/R social movements. Each is distinguished by an emphasis on one or more processes of changing economic, political, and/or ideological environments as key features shaping the trajectory of these movements.

2.1 Economic Factors

2.1.1 Internal Colonialism Theory. Internal colonialism theory suggests that a combination of uneven industrialization and cultural differences among regions in core nations cause ethnic grievances to become the basis of enduring political contention. In this view, the sources of ethnic solidarity include uneven regional development that reinforces or creates inequality, dependence on external or international investment, and an occupational structure that is highly segregated along ethnic lines. Furthermore, according to this argument, a high level of ethnic solidarity and a division of labor segmented along ethnic lines provokes ethnic conflict in developed regions, rather than in impoverished areas (Hechter 1975).

2.1.2 Competition Theory. Some counterevidence suggests that states experiencing a decline in ethnic inequality experience movements expressing claims for autonomy and political rights for minorities, while patterns of ethnic violence occurs in states that exclude ethnic minorities from the political process (Smith 1979, p. 35). Competition theories of race and ethnic relations offer an explanation for these findings. According to competition theory, declining inequality among regions (or groups) promotes competitive conflict among race and ethnic groups (Olzak and Nagel 1986). This is because declining inequality and intergroup contact release forces of competitive exclusion and conflict (Barth 1969). In this view, E/R social movements result from conditions of niche overlap (rather than from niche segregation). For example, competition theorists argue that ethnic conflict arises when ethnic groups within nations come to compete in the same labor markets and increase their access to similar sets of political, economic, and social resources (Nielsen 1985, Olzak 1992). Split labor market theories further suggest that ethnic conflict intensifies when groups command different levels of wages and conflict becomes divided along both economic and ethnic lines (Bonacich 1972). Mobilization based upon race or ethnic identity occurs as dominant groups attempt to reassert their dominance over newly competing groups, or as formerly disadvantaged ethnic groups challenge the existing power structure.

2.1.3 Rational Choice Theory. This perspective emphasizes shifts in the calculus of the costs and benefits attached to ethnic mobilization. According to this view modern ethnic movements occur with regularity because they have unique properties that allow them to overcome the free rider problem that encourages nonparticipation. According to this view, because ethnic groups are able to form dense social networks, group solidarity is high, minimizing costs of mobilization. Simultaneously, ethnic groups can efficiently apply systems of monitoring behavior, insuring loyalty, and sanctioning members (Hechter 1987a). Building on rational choice models, Fearon and Laitin (1996) and Weingast (1998) have linked the strategic aspects of ethnic identity to violence, as elites build on existing ethnic loyalties. Additionally, Bhavhani and Backer (2000) argue that the presence of genocidal norms (that sanction in-group members who decline participation in ethnic mayhem) tends to increase the scale of ethnic violence. One testament to the power of these norms is that the intensity of ethnic killing can remain high, despite a history of intergroup cooperation and trust among groups.

2.2 Political Factors

These perspectives emphasize the role of shifts in political constraints and opportunity structures that influence the trajectory of E/R social movements. Horowitz (1975) examines the centrifugal force of ethnic political parties, which maintain ethnic loyalties through institutional arrangements and patronage based on ethnic loyalties. Some social scientists argue that the decline of authoritarian regimes coincides with the resurgence of ethnic or nationalist movements because the retreat of strong, repressive authorities leaves a power vacuum (Gurr 1993). As the former military and administrative structures recede, local level elites mobilize ethnic loyalties and take advantage of this vacuum. Along similar lines, McAdam (1982) provides evidence from the USA that suggests that shifts in political opportunities (either positive or negative) drove the rates of protest activity during peak periods of civil rights insurgency. State repression may subdue such movements, but this effect is often temporary.

2.3 Cultural Ideological Factors

2.3.1 Nationalism. All forms of E/R movements articulate demands that invoke one or more cultural themes of nationalism, rights of self-determination, expansion of human rights, and basic rights of sovereignty (Smith 1979, Hechter 1987b). Sovereignty claims usually refer to shared experiences of ‘a people,’ which can be real or imagined (Anderson 1991). Moreover, the acceptance of the legitimacy of nationalism has parallels in the diffusion of a worldwide human rights movement, which acts as an orienting frame for states and E/R social movements.

2.3.2 Diffusion. Social movement tactics, organizations, and claims have diffused across national borders, creating an international network of E/R social movements that share common themes. Selfand-other definitions based on racial markers, linguistic, or historic patterns of subordination justify and legitimate these claims in virtually all of the world’s states. For instance, Olzak and Tsutsui (1999) find that although integration into a world system of power and domination facilitates E/R movements, these effects vary considerably across countries. In addition, processes of diffusion have intensified the international scope of these movements, transforming them into highly contentious international issues.


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